Joan Walsh’s post, “Can right-wing hate talk lead to murder?” at Salon asks an important question that merits a thoughtful response. Walsh writes and talks in a “Hardball” video clip about the murders of Dr. George Tiller and Steven Tyrone Johns, a security guard at the Holocaust Museum, both by right wing extremists. Walsh focuses more on the murder of Tiller, because it was preceeded by some extreme rhetoric by Bill O’Reilly. As Walsh explains,
O’Reilly more than demonized Tiller; night after night he called him a baby killer, compared him to the Nazis, and suggested that he must be stopped. Roeder stopped him, all right. If I were O’Reilly I’d feel terrible for putting a private figure in my public sights night after night, simply for doing his lawful job. But O’Reilly has no conscience, so he’s proud of it.
Walsh goes on to cite the demonization of President Obama and Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomajor as current concerns. Walsh is on to something with her point about demonization nurturing future violence. It’s too easy to dismiss the murder of Dr. Tiller as the work of a religious nutcase and the killing of Mr. Johns as the act of a neo-Nazi, and let it go at that. Violent extremists don’t exist in a vacuum; they are nourished in a culture or subculture.
I always felt that Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 launched his campaign for the presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi , known primarilly as the place where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964, and Newt Gingrich, both went way over the top in their wholesale bashing of government. They ratcheted up the rhetoric of hatred and contempt for government, perhaps to an all-time high. Such a climate of hatred for government helped to nurture Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Walsh rightly points out that not all conservatives are violence-prone. In fact, I would argue that true conservatives don’t like extremist rhetoric. And I have to admit that I have on occasion heard my fellow liberals parroting hateful denunciations of conservatives. But I do believe that the problem of hateful rhetoric is growing among right-wing ideologues, particularly public figures, and seems to be undergirded by racist attitudes, religious bigotry and xenophobia. Conservative intellectuals have a responsibility to provide a little leadership to tone down the hate-mongering. There is probably not much that can be done about ideologues like O’Reilly and Buchanan, other than boycott O’Reilly’s sponsors. But it couldn’t hurt for serious conservatives to urge a little more civility and fewer ad hominem attacks.
The important thing for Democrats and progressives to keep in mind is that we also have to clean up our own act and discourage nasty personal attacks from liberal spokespersons. Vigorous criticism of ideas and policies, yes. A little snark is even OK in debating ideas and policies, but ease up on the name-calling and personal put-downs. In so doing, we will help make clear which party is being lead by the grown-ups.